Friday, October 31, 2014

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 84 (Call the Midwife, Supernatural)

Jill Buratto is a nurse specializing in end of life issues, a general badass, and my wife.
In case you missed the boom, Call the Midwife is a BBC period drama about a group of midwives servicing London’s East End in the 1950s, originally based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. It is the newest big show to hit UK television with ratings roughly matching those of Sherlock and Downton Abbey and surpassing Doctor Who itself. Call the Midwife was also featured in 2013’s Comedy Relief sketch (partnering with Doctor Who in this endeavor) and has Paul McGann’s brother, Stephen McGann as a prominent character in their series. UK TV ends up being a bit incestuous. 

Medical shows are a hard sell to those who work in the medical field. Much in the same way those in the tech field often cannot help but point out the inconsistencies and illogical moments when tech appears in TV or cinema, those of us in the medical field see the problems others can safely ignore. Even “reality” medical shows fall afoul of this issue, I remember yelling at a Mystery Diagnosis episode that “there is dumbing the facts down for the laypeople and then there is outright lying to them!”

But this is a problem that Call the Midwife sidesteps so well. Because the medicine is very rarely, if ever, the focus of the episode. With the emphasis shifted, they only have to include as many medical facts as they see fit. We never get a long and convoluted explanation of what is going on or why things are stressful, we get just enough to see the broad shapes of the situation and are led to conclusions about the situation by the players reactions to it. They stay vague enough to avoid getting things significantly wrong (though I feel I should disclaim all this by mentioning I am very much NOT a maternity nurse, there may be errors I do not pick up on). This era is also just out of step enough with the present that, unless there are glaring “no, that cannot possibly make sense if they’ve got brains in their heads,” I may not necessarily notice the errors. These are all things I appreciate enormously. It is so nice to be able to watch a medical show without the nurse brain picking apart every little detail.

So what’s the focus of Call the Midwife if it’s not the medicine? Well, it’s the people of course. And not in the schmaltzy, soapy Grey’s Anatomy sense. It’s what I adore about Call the Midwife, it’s the key to how they do convey how stressful situations are. It’s never the stress of watching numbers trend down or hearing alarms blaring, it is watching the people who are in the trenches give each other knowing and mildly terrified looks, gritting their teeth and getting through it. It is watching these women get their patients and each other through heart-wrenching, soul-crushing and nightmare-inducing situations. It is about them going home and getting on with their lives after.

And here we get to what, to my mind, makes this show so good. This is a show about a group of women who walk into people’s homes and see the most intimate parts of their lives. It is about walking into strangers’ lives and seeing the absolute best and worst of them. It is about being pulled intimately into the worlds of others and watching them face incredible challenges, about watching some soar with grace and dignity while others are crushed, made small and petty. It is about caring for each and every one of them regardless of their challenges and reactions to them. And it is about having a life beyond the nearly all-consuming task of caring for the people around them.

That’s one of the clever things about having the midwives quarters in Nonnatus House, in having them live where they work. Because any nurse will tell you, one of the hardest parts of our job is leaving work at work. We are terrible at self care, both in attending to our own health and it ensuring that we have lives beyond our work. Having the midwives live at Nonnatus House gives them an insulated little microcosm in which they always have people who can relate to them (hey, hey, an easy in to the storytelling) but also makes it demonstrably harder to have a life outside of the work. It keeps the women mired in the work which, again, helps the storyteller. It is why Chummy needed to get her own home when she had her own family and why Jenny’s departure from Nonnatus House coincides with her departure from the story.

And, let me be clear, that is what nursing is like. Sometimes it takes a physical departure or a tangible break from a situation or unit or hospital before you can leave a situation behind. And sometimes even that doesn’t work. The lives of strangers become more important to you than your own self-care. If we are not careful, it becomes toxic. Call the Midwife is about women who do it well. And this is what I love about this show. It discusses the torment and joy of being a nurse in a very real sense. I love the science, I love the medicine, but that’s not what nursing is about. It is about the people we care for, it is about making horrible situations, if not good, at least better.

And you can never escape the grip of your job. Just yesterday, I had a conversation I wished I’d never have to have with someone I know and one I know I will have over and over again. My upstairs neighbor, one of the sweetest people I have ever met, has recurrent colon cancer. She had to tap out after three out of five months of chemo because she just couldn’t do it anymore and any oncologist will tell you stopping treatment early is no longer a curative gameplan. I went up to see her and give her a hug before work. She accepted it then quickly ushered me away saying “you have to go get ready to help people like me.” I still want to cry. Of course, I told her if she needed anything at all she could call me. I never wanted to be her nurse. I never wanted to be the nurse for my family members or friends. But I will over and over again. Because, Nonnatus House or no, nursing becomes your world. For better or for worse, your life becomes entirely about the people around you.

Which brings us to Rory. Because this is the tradition and the lifestyle that gave rise to Rory Williams, the last centurion. Like anyone else who has slogged through the best and the worst of people, Rory’s identity as a nurse informs everything he does. His work on a coma ward, watching over his patients and waiting for signs of life, made him uniquely prepared to watch over the Pandorica and wait for nearly two millennia for his wife to emerge.

It isn’t until Rory guards the Pandorica that he embraces his role as nurse to the Doctor’s… well, doctor. Prior to becoming “the last centurion,” he is still unsure, still hesitant, still the third wheel to Amy and the Doctor. Amy’s Choice, in which Rory’s “dream” of becoming a doctor, must necessarily come before his role as a nurse is solidified. The episode-long dick-measuring contest only make sense if Rory and the Doctor are measured on the same scale. We see moments of Rory-as-nurse, small instances, caring for Mack in Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, pointing out that the Doctor is calling back the bad things in The Eleventh Hour. He is the novice nurse, learning the ropes, figuring out his place in the scene.

And then we get to the Big Bang and we see Rory as nurse, as the sort of nurse described above. One who will, to the detriment of his own health and safety and well-being, will ensure the health and safety and well-being of people around him. He’s not just being human here, he is being the caregiver. Without the convenience of Nonnatus House to frame the terse story of caring, we instead have the Pandorica. 

And, the fact is, the Doctor needs a nurse. Someone who hears the grand, sweeping statements and proclamations and thinks about the practicalities and the people involved. He needs someone who is patient and caring and kind. He needs someone who complains “it is always my turn” when ensuring people adjust to the bizarre reality that is the TARDIS and yet does it every time. He needs someone who will grit his teeth, do what needs to be done and get through it. It’s little wonder that Rory is the one in the Impossible Astronaut who gives voice to what has to happen next. It is the job of doctors to make grand statements, it is the job of nurses to keep reality in sight, for better or worse.

Because without a nurse, without a caregiver, we have the sort of Doctor who is okay with removing the autonomy of others. See how Donna’s story ended. The Doctor, in Journey’s End, essentially ignores a DNR/DNI order. That is the reality of what happened with Donna. The very point of the Doctor/Donna metacrisis is that she knows. She understands everything. She understands what is happening to her and why it is happening and, with that full knowledge, makes a choice. But the Doctor’s choices  completely wipe any autonomy from Donna in determining her own quality of life. It is a type of violation that I have come to think of, in my own practice, as medical rape.

One of the most striking things about my reaction to the scene is how frightfully typical of doctors this is. There is still this attitude among a lot of the MDs that every death is a failure. So they push. They spin. They present information in ways that give them the opportunity to try again. They make people feel guilty for wanting to forgo treatment and remain comfortable for as long as possible. It is the role of nurses to ensure that the patients’ voices and wishes are heard.

That’s what this comes down to. It was Donna’s mind and her choice. She knew, she understood what it meant to continue on with the Human/Time Lord Biological Metacrisis and the DoctorDonna. She felt her quality of life was better, that she was better having done the things she had while traveling with him and was unwilling to lose all of that. Even if it meant her mind burning. But that would have been a failure for the Doctor. The first proper companion death since Adric. And he couldn’t stand for that. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand what she was doing, she did. She absolutely understood everything. That was the point. He just couldn’t standby and let her make that choice so he took it from her. Forced her to live a life that she considered less fulfilling. Indefinitely. With no memory of what she could have had. Which I suppose is a small mercy, at least she didn’t live in misery and regret. 

The Doctor made this decision about him, as all doctors do. (And worse, Davies let him, never offering any sort of criticism or question that the Doctor might have erred.) About what he could accomplish, about who he could save, about how much loss he could handle. It should never have been about him. There was another, more important player in this decision whose voice was silenced through selfishness. It was a voice which may have been heard through the intervention of a nurse. 

There is a reason that the Doctor chose his name. He wants to help, he wants to heal but he so often forgets that the people he wants to help and heal have opinions and thoughts of their own. He is the Doctor, Time Lord from Gallifrey, why would anyone doubt his judgement? Why would anyone doubt the judgement of someone with a medical degree? Because it is their life and their choice. That is what a nurse does for you. That is what Rory does. After dreaming of being a doctor, the worst thing Rory can imagine is turning into the Doctor.

Which is such a dramatic change from Rory’s “dream” of being a doctor in Amy’s Choice. Because Rory has worked with doctors, he has worked in a hospital, he knows that acting like a doctor is remarkably similar to acting like the Doctor. And, of course he dreamed of being a doctor. No boy growing up dreams of being a nurse. That’s for girls, for people preparing to be mothers, for the natural caregivers. The men need to make the big decisions so the women can carry out their orders. 

In this regard, it’s worth looking at another show that floats around Doctor Who’s general orbit, Supernatural - a show that, perhaps improbably and counter-intuitively, has often been paired with Doctor Who and Sherlock in a meta-fandom known as “Superwholock.” I started watching Supernatural when it was wrapping the first season and I loved it. I reveled in what appeared to be reversal of the male gaze paired with mythic storytelling that I loved. And while the show does have some cheeky, clever and subversive moments and themes regarding gender, it is so preoccupied with reaffirming the masculinity of the cast that a consist subtext is the chanting of “no-homo” (notably, it is profoundly fucked up that the response is “no-homo” and not “no-incest”). Though, in this, viewers have promptly ignored despite the reiterations of both cast and crew.

And there are clever subversions of “typical” masculinity. We have the hyper-masculine man’s man, Dean who is overwhelmingly the emotional brother. Time after time, we get close ups of Dean wiping away manly tears. Despite Sam being the “nerdy” brother, it is again Dean who, time after time, drops references to Star Trek, Star Wars or other canonically “nerdy” interests. And then we have Crowley who “regains” his emotions only when he becomes less demonic. The show literally demonizes typical masculinity.

But it it the same show that flat out denies that most of its fan base is female. We see this in the season 5 episode “The Real Ghostbusters” which parodies a real life Supernatural convention in which the attending fan base comprised of a large number of typically geeky, neckbeardy men with a few (one, in this case) rabid female fans who were explicitly fans of shipping. Despite this nod to the real fandom, the episode ignores the fact that the majority of actual viewers are female.

It is a show that ruthlessly queerbaits a significant portion of its fan base. Lines from the series include (between Dean and the male-protrayed angel Castiel) “Cas, not for nothing, but the last time someone looked at me like that…I got laid” and “Dean and I do share a more profound bond.” Despite the clear queerbaiting, this is a divisive issue among the fans of the show, causing outright alienation from the fandom for some and the cast, Jensen Ackles in particular, is uncomfortable enough with this train of thought to actively shut down questions from fans regarding possible relationships.

It is a show that frequently and ruthlessly shoves its female characters into refrigerators. The final two episodes of season 8 were an extended FridgeFest, most of the surviving females (few enough as it was) were picked off one by one. The express intent of this FridgeFest was to convince the brothers to agree to a deal as all of the people they have ever saved are killed. The survivors of this cull included the token saved female (Sheriff Jodi Mills), Felicia Day and Meg, the demon. Who died the next episode. 

The appeal, for me, what the mythos but also that masculinity with a twist. As the show progresses, while I still enjoy watching it, I am becoming more and more aware of the problematic beats that undermine the good bits. That masculinity with a twist is exactly what is so well represented with Rory. A masculinity that is markedly not in line with a doctor’s role of barking orders, insensitive comments and callous decisions. 

Instead, the masculinity presented by Rory is actually very in line with the attitude behind Call the Midwife. You do what you do because you have to, you take care of the people around you because they are your responsibility as much as you are theirs. The hallmark of the masculinity Rory represents can be found in The Girl Who Waited. While the Doctor’s instinct (again, so doctorish) is to withhold information to lead Amy and Rory to a conclusion, Rory’s inclination is to give her all of the information he has so that she can make an educated and thought out decision about her life. And he is going to support her in any way. The sort of masculinity we see in Rory is so informed by his history as a nurse in that his goal is always to support those around him to be the best they can be. Always. 

It is in subtle contrast to the type of masculinity seen in the Doctor (which is, again, masculinity with a twist). In contrast to what we see in shows like Supernatural, in which the immediate male reaction to situations is violence to protect others (which is occasionally interrogated in Supernatural, I will give them that credit), the Doctor’s immediate reaction is to figure out what the hell is going on and make bad decisions so that others don’t have to. Sometimes, he reacts to new things with wonder and hope like in Kill the Moon or even in the early stages of Flatline. But sometimes terrible decisions need to be made and, in order to protect those he cares for (and the Doctor does care so much) he makes those decisions for them. Which can be an immensely problematic attitude, as we see in the case of Donna. 

In the end, this caretaking is the pinnacle of masculinity in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Look at Danny Pink. Danny Pink who doesn’t particularly like that his girlfriend runs off to have adventures in space and time with a man who regularly pushes her to her limits. Danny Pink who, despite his qualms, only asks Clara to be honest and open with him. Danny Pink who, even upon finding out that Clara has been lying to him for weeks about traveling with the Doctor doesn't shout or get angry or expect an immediate answer, he gives her time and space to think, simply asking for an honest answer. Danny Pink who is curious, bewildered and enchanted by a situation still remembers that his curiosity is not the priority, those around him are. Danny Pink who recognizes that there are wonders here.

And of course, this is not Moffat’s first foray into examining the concept of masculinity, who has been interrogating traditional masculinity ever since the character of Spike back in Press Gang, most obviously in his withering portrayal of himself in Joking Apart, the first of many brilliant but unthinkingly cruel men he would write. Nor is this a new train for Doctor Who whose challenge of stereotypical male roles is part of what made it so attractive to gay men. The typical “male” aggression has little place in exploring the universe, one needs to be thoughtful and curious and kind. It is this slightly twisted masculinity that is vaulted by Doctor Who.

TLDR: If you want a real man, get a nurse.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Comics Reviews (October 30th, 2014)

As ever, ranked from least enjoyed to most, with everything being a book I was willing to spend money on.

All-New X-Men #33

The original X-Men touring the Ultimate Universe is proving a bit sloppy. Too many characters split up into too many storylines emphasizes one of Bendis's weak spots, which is that an issue can pass without a sense that much has happened. Split that over four plots and you run into issues where not a lot actually does happen. A promising cliffhanger, but aren't they all?

The Massive #28

The six-part structure of the final arc turns out to be at least slightly artificial, with this very much being the start of a new three-part arc. But I suspect calling it a six-part arc was wise, as there's a real flagging in the momentum here. This is not unusual for this book, which has always disappointed a bit. Not bad, but I'm not going to miss this much when it's over.

Guardians of the Galaxy #20

Hm? Oh. Yes. This plot. The death of Richard Ryder, and all that. It wraps up pretty well. I'm not sure it was three issues of story, and certainly not sure it was worth pausing the actual Guardians for three months, but fair enough. It wasn't half bad. Glad to be moving on though.

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor #4

I admit, this threw me for a bit of a loop, just because I'd gotten used to done-in-ones, and really wasn't expecting a multipart story, which in turn made the pacing feel weird throughout. Rereading it, it's a nice setup for a story. Alice, in particular, gets some excellent material here, as she and the Doctor come into a subtle sort of conflict. This fits into Eleven's overall story arc quite well, and into the way the nature of the companion has evolved over the Moffat era. Good fun, this. Still highly recommended.

Wonder Woman #35

And so the Azzarello run ends. The rest of the New 52 did away with this book's ability to actually define a new generation's Wonder Woman, but it soldiered on and at least provided an interesting vision of her that was consistently one of the few books in the New 52's first three years capable of being interesting. Here it ends, with some nice callbacks to Marston and the book's legacy. There's even talk of submission. There's little to be excited about in the next phase of Wonder Woman. This, at least, was a book you could be proud of. Good for it.

Saga #24

Is it possible to write a bad comic with a Lying Cat splash page? No. It probably is not. I should really archive binge this in the gap months to actually get up to speed on the plots and characters, because it's self-evidently an absolutely brilliant comic. Apparently there's a nice oversized hardcover of the first eighteen issues coming out. Lovely Christmas present, that.

Uber #19

The stuff this book is doing with war comics is absolutely fascinating. Body horror bleeds into depictions of the basic cruelty of war, which bleeds in turn into discussions of racism. It's not a book you feel happy about, but it's one of the best and most important comics being published right now, and I'll keep banging the drum for it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Day After The World Ended (The Last War in Albion Part 68: The Apocalypse)

This is the eighteenth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the fourth volume. It's available in the US here and UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionAlan Moore paid off a year of eschatological foreshadowing with the unleashing of the primordial spirit of evil itself in a bizarre South American death ritual conducted by the Brujería, who represent the blackness at the heart of America.

"We all woke up, the day after the world ended, and we still had to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads. Life goes on, y'know?" - Alan Moore, Promethea

Figure 508: Judith's transformation is a triumph of
psychedelic body horror. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #48, 1986)
The unleashing of this horror, in “A Murder of Crows,” in Swamp Thing #48, comes when one of Constantine’s allies, Judith, betrays him to the Brujería and agrees to serve as their messenger. This involves a ritual in which Judith vomits out her intestines and allows her body to shrivel until only her severed but still talking head remains. The Brujería then place a black pearl in her mouth, at which point her head steadily transforms into a bird, a process that is laboriously and disturbingly described, at which point the bird is released to summon the nameless dark power by delivering a pearl held in its mouth to a distant destination. Although this transformation is presented as a physical corruption ripe with body horror, the fact that it is brought about via Judith ingesting an unnamed root places it in the larger thematic tradition of psychedelic plants within Moore’s Swamp Thing. It is, in other words, inexorably linked with the bad trip - the negative, monstrous aspect of the spiritual plane. 

Figure 509: Swamp Thing meets his ancestors in the
Parliament of Trees. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Stan
Woch and Ron Randall, from Swamp Thing #47, 1986)
But the summoning of this dark power is the third issue of the arc. The second, coming between it and the Crisis tie-in, presents a second, equally important aspect of this setup. In it, before journeying to the Brujería’s cave, Constantine takes Swamp Thing to the Parliament of Trees, also located in South America, in this case at the source of the River Tefé in the Amazon. Here Moore pays off the idea introduced in “Abandoned Houses,” revealing the resting place of all the past plant elementals of the world and allowing Swamp Thing to seek communion with them. In yet another sequence of psychedelia, Swamp Thing allows his mind to meld with that of the parliament, where he asks the “eternal trees” about the coming apocalypse, asking “how to use my power to its best advantage.” The Parliament recoils, saying, “power? Power is not the thing. To be calm within oneself, that is the way of the wood.” When Swamp Thing expresses doubt, saying that he has “seen much that is evil… it preys upon my mind. I wonder if nature can be just to allow such things,” the Parliament further rebukes him, telling him that “flesh doubts. Wood knows. If you wish to understand evil, you must understandt he bark, the roots, the worms of the earth. That is the wisdom of an Erl-King. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil. Is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is the evil in all the wood?” And with that, Swamp Thing is cast out of the Parliament, much to his horror. 

Taken together, these issues mirror the basic structure of “Windfall,” with “The Parliament of Trees” serving as Sandy’s half of the story and “A Murder of Crows” serving as Milo’s. These two aspects of the spiritual experience are, at least superficially, being pitted against each other, and yet in the Parliament’s answer there is already the setup for this debate’s inevitable resolution. This resolution occupies the final two issues of the arc, including the oversized Swamp Thing #50.

Figure 510: Marv Wolfman became the second
writer to tackle John Constantine. (Art by
George Perez and Mike DeCarlo, from Crisis
on Infinite Earths
 #4, 1985. Composite of two
These issues, perhaps surprisingly, return the focus to the larger DC Universe. With the Brujería’s messenger released, Constantine is forced to drop to plan B - preparing to battle the entity they’ve summoned once it arrives. This involves Constantine and Swamp Thing parting ways again to handle parallel tasks. Constantine, for his part, begins meeting with various mystical figures within the DC Universe: Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Baron Winters, John B. Wentworth and Howard Purcell’s Golden Age creation Sargon the Sorcerer, a character created for Action Comics #1 by Fred Guardineer called Zatara, along with his Gardner Fox/Murphey Anderson-created daughter (and Justice League member) Zatanna, the pre-Superman Siegel and Shuster creation Doctor Occult (who shows up uninvited), and finally Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani’s Steve Dayton, “the world’s fifth richest man,” who created a helmet to increase his mental powers and who goes by the name of Mento. This latter character’s inclusion was foreshadowed back in Crisis on Infinite Earths #4, where Constantine meets with him in a more or less contextless eight-panel scene wedged between a scene with Batgirl and Supergirl and one in which Pariah, a character created for Crisis, witnessing more earths dying (which is most of what he does in the story), an appearance that was followed up on by an equally cryptic sequence in Swamp Thing #44 (“Bogeymen”). Swamp Thing, on the other hand, connects back with the various characters he met back in “Down Among the Dead Men” in order to confront the being on the spiritual plane. 

Figure 511: Zatara bursts into flames, his top hat sickly and
hilariously unaffected. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
, 1986)
The oversized Swamp Thing #50, which also served as Steve Bissette’s final issue as the book’s primary penciller, finally offers this confrontation, with a series of supernatural beings attempting to defeat the summoned being and failing before Swamp Thing finally saves the day. While this is going on, Constantine and his allies watch via Mento’s psychic powers, narrating events and, as Constantine explains it, channeling their magical energies to help Swamp Thing and his allies, which results in the incineration of both Sargon and Zatara due to psychic backlash from the blackness. The confrontation itself consists of four characters fighting their way to the gigantic shadow at that is the nameless entity, where they are grabbed and forcibly drawn into it to confront it.

Figure 512: Doctor Fate fails to appease the
horrible darkness. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #50, 1986)
These confrontations are depicted as sequences in which the characters float in an immense blackness, which addresses them in turn, asking each a question. They in turn answer and, as the shadow finds their answers unacceptable, are cast out. First is Etrigan, to whom the shadow explains, “before light, I was; enldess, without name or need of name. Then light came. Witnessing its otherness, I suffered my first knowledge of self, and all contentment fled. Tell me, little thing. Tell me what I am.” Etrigan, for his part, explains that the darkness is “evil, absence of god’s light, his shadow-partner, locked in endless fight.” But the shadow is unimpressed, claiming all Etrigan has taught it is fatalism and inevitability, and that these are not what it needs. Next is Doctor Fate, a Golden Age magical character, who, when asked, “Little Thing, what is evil,” replies that “evil is a quagmire of ignorance that would drag us back as we climb towards the immortal light. A vile, wretched thing, to be scraped from the sandals like dromedary soil.” Again, the shadow is unimpressed, saying that Doctor Fate has only taught it contempt and casting him out. At last comes the Spectre, who, asked the same question as Doctor Fate, proclaims that “evil exists only to be avenged, so that others may see what ruin comes of opposing that great voice, and cleave more wholly to its will, fearing its retribution,” to which the shadow says that the Spectre has taught it only vengeance and casts him out. At this point it appears that all hope is lost, and even the Phantom Stranger seems to give up. But Constantine, for his part, demands to know what Swamp Thing is doing, shouting that “this is what I prepared him for!” Swamp Thing, for his part, walks willingly into the blackness. 

Figure 513: Swamp Thing willingly enters the darkness to
confront the hideous beast. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben, from Swamp
 #50, 1986)
Here, then, Moore sets the stage for his larger philosophical confrontation. Having identified a fundamental rot within this new continent in which his tales are to be unleashed, he has now brought an apocalyptic force to devour it. More than that, he has lent this final judgment a moral rightness. To Doctor Fate’s contempt, it quite reasonably asks, “am I so low, then, and is he you serve so high that there can be no possibility of respect between us?” And to the Spectre’s suggestion that evil exists only to be punished, it asks, “what of the tortured eons I endured, unable to broach this maddening brilliance and quiet the pain it woke in me? Do they not demand retribution?” In this final question, the darkness brings up a fundamental and previously unspoken aspect of Moore’s story. The darkness is, by this point, being portrayed as the nothing in which God created light, an event that has tortured it with knowledge of self ever since. This has parallels in the basic idea of an American darkness and of the Brujería. The depiction of them as existing in the furthest reach of the continent raises the question of what exists in the rest of the continent. The answer, of course, is the product of European colonialism, which led to the overthrow and oppression of the indigenous population to which the Brujería belong. This colonialism is mirrored in the darkness’s pain at being invaded by light, and the angry vengeance that it comes to demand serves as a metaphor for the oppressed and subaltern indigenous populations. The darkness is not evil, in this analogy, but rather a righteous demand for justice on the part of the deeply aggrieved, with the European light being the true villain of the piece.

Figure 514: Swamp Thing discusses the nature
of evil with its embodiment. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and
John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #50, 1986)
And yet having engineered this conflict carefully over the course of more than a year of comics, at the final moment Moore opts to avert it. Swamp Thing, when faced with the darkness’s question about the nature of evil, at first reflects on the evil he witnessed during the “American Gothic” arc: “its cruelty… the randomness with which it ravages… innocent… and guilty alike.” But then he comes to the council given by the Parliament of Trees, admitting that he did not understand their answer. “And yet,” he says, “they spoke of aphids eating leaves, bugs eating aphids, themselves finally devoured by the soil, feeding the foliage. They asked where evil dwelled within this cycle and told me to look to the soil. The black soil is rich in foul decay… yet glorious life springs from it. But however dazzling the flourishes of life, in the end, all decays to the same black humus… Perhaps evil,” he finally concludes “is the humus formed by virtue’s decay… and perhaps… perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest?” This answer, at last, is satisfactory to the darkness, which allows Swamp Thing to leave freely while it reflects upon what he has said, and then finally confronts the light, depicted as a double page spread of two massive hands reaching towards each other. The scene is narrated by Dayton, who is driven hopelessly mad by the experience and left unable to describe it. Instead Moore offers only the cryptic words of the Phantom Stranger, who says that “the light and shade are still everywhere around us… only the conflict between them has altered,” later musing that “in the heart of darkness, a flower blossoms, etching the shadows with its promise of hope… in the fields of light, an adder coils, and the radiant tranquility is lent savor by its sinister presence. Right and wrong, black and white, good and evil… all my existence I have looked from one to the other, fully embracing neither one… never before have I understood how much they depend upon each other.” 

Figure 515: (Art by Eddie Campbell, from Snakes and Ladders, 2001)
Within this ending there is a kernel of interesting observation that Moore, in his usual obliquely unchanging manner, would return to in his later career when, for example, he had Promethea muse that “if Qlippoths are husks left when good departs, does that mean evil isn’t a real thing, in itself? It’s just an absence of good, like dark’s an absence of light?”, or when, in Snakes and Ladders, he writes that “the profane and sacred are both one, and that the salt of the earth and its scum are struck from the same coin, and in our lowest depths, the worst abyss of us, there is a light.” There are, to be sure, profound implications to this sort of thing - it’s an insight not unlike that of Blake when he wrote that “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason, Evil is the active springing from energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Figure 516: The inscrutable resolution to Alan Moore's first apocalypse.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #50, 1986)
And yet for all of this, there is something frustratingly hollow about the resolution. There is no describable change effected by Moore’s resolution. Good and evil are said to have the same relationship as ever, although the Phantom Stranger concedes that perhaps “a different light has been cast upon their relationship.” But within the confines of DC’s superhero line, in which the comic is tacitly grounded, this seems set to mean little. A “no-score draw,” as Constantine describes the outcome, inherently favors the side that had power at the outset - that is, the light that has banished the darkness to a point depicted as “a chaotic inferno with neither land nor sky” beyond the edges of reality itself. DC Comics and its multitude of superhero franchises will continue to embrace “good,” and by extension to embrace the status quo. The light will always retain its tacit allegiance with entrenched power structures, and the darkness will never have its vengeance for the light’s invasion of it. 

Figure 517: The Peacemaker, whose death
was to be made into a mystery by Alan Moore.
The fundamentally conservative nature of this ending is stressed by the issue’s final page, which returns to Cain and Abel. Abel reflects upon the situation, noting that “nearly all our stories revolve around good struggling against evil… darkness against light… what will become of the stories? Without that ancient conflict to fall back on, what will they be about?” Cain’s answer, of course, is to shove his brother off a cliff to his death with a wisecrack about how he’s “sure we’ll think of something,” a moment that reiterates the complete lack of change offered by this resolution. This is not, as Moore would later write in Promethea, a conceptual apocalypse with the real possibility of transforming the world. Rather, it’s a damp squib - a whimpering end of the world wholly devoid of bang.

It is not fair, however, to frame this as a failing on Moore’s part. For all that he was rapidly becoming the golden boy of DC Comics, Moore was never going to be allowed to fundamentally and irrevocably alter the nature of the DC Universe, and he was certainly not naive enough to think otherwise. He had, after all, by this point, already had his plans for a story called Who Killed the Peacemaker? [continued]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Welcome to Night Vale - "The Librarian" Review

Abigail Brady would like to talk to you about Welcome to Night Vale.

Have you listened to Welcome to Night Vale?  It’s a podcast.  That doesn’t explain it.  Podcasts are usually chat shows - Night Vale is a dramatic presentation, in the form of a talk radio show, presented by a chap we eventually find out is called Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin).  It is set in a small desert town called Night Vale, a place where every conspiracy theory is openly acknowledged to be true.  I tried to condense it to a two-word pitch the other day, and the best I could come up with with was “Innsmouth FM”.  A four-word pitch would be “Innsmouth FM.  With jokes.”  Mind, they distance themselves from Lovecraft, pointing at plenty of other contemporaneous weird fiction authors, who are less massive racists, as influences.  As a writer, what I admire most about it is its ability to change tones so rapidly and yet so completely, between the comedy and the horror, without either undermining the other.  It has a highly enthusiastic and growing fanbase, gained through word-of-mouth rather than any marketing-led push.   A lot of it is that it it’s an ideal fit for tumblr’s combination of humour and politics.  But it still seems pretty amazing for it to go from nothing to a small media franchise just through personal recommendations.  Even more amazing for this to happen in a format - the audio drama - that is new to most of the listeners.  It really is that good.

I asked several people who attended the October London shows how exactly they go into Night Vale, and nobody could really remember.   I mean, I can’t even really remember how I got into it.  My only hard date is that I nominated episodes for the 2014 Hugo Awards, so that’s certainly by the end of January 2014.  Night Vale fandom this time wasn’t organised enough to get an episode on the ballot. “The Sandstorm” (a two-parter with a season-finale feel that I didn’t think to put down) picked up 30 nominations, only eight fewer than “The Name of the Doctor”.  Maybe next year the second anniversary episode, “Old Oak Doors”, will make it through.  Guys, let's remember that, yeah?

“Old Oak Doors” was exceptional, and not just in its the way it used its status as a season finale to kick you in as more teeth than Buffy’s “Becoming” did.  It was a two-parter, at the end of the second year of the podcast, it was recorded live in New York in June 2014.  And I have to confess, I found that... it didn’t entirely work recorded?  Particularly the bits where it is obvious Cecil or someone is doing something funny on stage, but we don’t get the joke because we can’t see him but we have to listen to the crowd laugh anyway.  Night Vale live is a different thing to the podcast.  Podcasts are typically a solitary listening experience.  How you engage with the material is entirely up to you.  If you want to treat Night Vale as purely horrific, without seeing the funny side, without laughing at the jokes, you can.  If there aren’t any bits you see as serious, you can laugh all the way through.  In an audience it’s much more difficult to interpret it like that.  If people are laughing, then it’s supposed to be funny material.  If people aren’t laughing, then, well, maybe it is supposed to be funny and it failed.  But more likely, it’s one of the spooky bits and you should shush during it.  A lot of that depends upon delivery and tone (Meg’s “today’s proverb” is an instant crowd-shutter-upper), but I saw the same show on two consecutive nights, and the audience reacted to it differently.

So, coming out of that show on the 20th, what do we think?  Universal excitement, obviously.  It's not so much a play as a gig by a band we really like.  They didn't play many of the radio hits - there was no Intern Dana, no Khoshekh, and very sadly, no Carlos (not in person, anyway).  But we're here, right, we are fans.  And we're not just any fans but we are the fans from the first London date.  The one that sold out first in all of Europe.  The one that several groups of people I know were at, because several of my friends had filled their boots with Night Vale tickets and tried to get rid of them.  The one where I couldn't possibly catch up with everyone I knew was going, let alone everyone I bumped into.  It was an exceptionally good night, and Cecil tweeted about it, not in a “I bet you say that to all the audiences” way, but in a properly superlative way that means he might just mean it.

“The Librarian”, which they've been touring since January, is a fairly standard-format show, compared to “Old Oak Doors”, and “The Debate”.  We set up a crisis in the first segment, we go away to jokes and spooky bits, we have a guest appearance or two (this is an addition to the setup - for maybe half a year the only on-air voice was Cecil himself), we cut back to the main event a couple of times, and then on the last of these the crisis worsens and we go to the weather.   (The weather is a song.)  When we get back from the weather Cecil fills us in on how the crisis has been resolved.  That’s the default setup for a Night Vale episode.  That’s how you’d write a Night Vale spec script.  It’s a very modular show.  The version I saw had, apart from Pamela Winchell, Deb, an Intern, (on the 21st) Louie Blascoe, Michelle Nguyen.  Dublin lacked Michelle and Pamela.  The Internet tells me that “The Librarian” has also seen appearances by Tamika Flynn, Carlos, The Faceless Old Woman, Steve Carlsberg, and Molly Quinn, although not necessarily at the same time.

But normal in form is not normal in content.  The early horoscopes section certainly violated the literal fourth wall, as Cecil starts pointing at individual audience members, and it stops being a twisted live theatrical reading and turns into geek panto.  This bit was the first where the contrast between the audiences became apparent.  The crowd on the Tuesday took a bit of warming up before they were whooping loudly at particular star signs and getting Cecil to focus his attention on them.  Monday’s lot, they were right there already, drunk on anticipation and beer.

This was a practice run for the main set piece, which I shall be deliberately vague about, which used the audience and the theatre space in a pretty astonishing you-had-to-be-there-way.

They asked people not to record video, and I dutifully didn’t, but a bit of me hopes that someone did.  Partly because of the ever changing nature of the show - the Louie Blascoe bit appeared to be making its debut on the 21st, for example, but because the version they'll tape in New York in January 2015 will be playing to the listeners, and for this show, the thing that made it magic for me was the connections we formed.  In the queue, partly, but Cecil’s body language, seeing him silence a hall with just a finger and a change in tone; and hiding under your seat while keeping half an eye on the rest of the audience to check they are doing the same thing (they were).

This interactivity is the ultimate form of what was already a very tight feedback loop.  I wouldn't want to speculate about how much buffer they have, but it would certainly be feasible for them to not have any, for each episode to be recorded after the release of the last.  There aren't many dramatic media like that - some sitcoms, perhaps, and some webcomics.  You can see the show evolve from its early days.  Every so often I make a new person listen to the first episode, "Pilot", just to try end hook them, and I don't think it's very represntative of the show now.   That first episode is a piece of performance poetry, tight, but not what it will become.   The chief thing they got right was the casting.  The casting and the setting.   And the medium.

Audio is perfect for Night Vale.  You can do so many rug pulls.  The very conceit of this show is one - that Librarians in Night Vale are strange horrific insectoid beasts, is one.  "Condos", which was their previous touring show, does another, as it turns out that means something very different in Night Vale.  They are forever subverting our mental imagery.   You couldn't do that on telly or film, you can't retcon in the weird by suddenly revealing that there had never been any books in town.   You couldn't do it in comics, either.   You could perhaps do it in prose.

They are writing a novel.  I'll be reading it, obviously.  What I am most interested about it right now is not what the plot will be or whether it will be canon, but what sort of narrative voice it will be.  Night Vale episodes are structured as broadcasts.  Will the novel take the approach that most Night Vale fanfics I've seen use, of just writing third person narrative following a mixed cast around?  I sort of hope not.  I'd love to see it be an epistolary novel mostly in the voice of Carlos.  Or something radically experimental that I would have a hope of thinking of because Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are geniuses.

If you get a chance to go to this show, do it.  They'll retire it after New York and replace it with another, and after then you'll have missed your chance to meet Amanda.  And listening to us lot meet Amanda don't be quite the same.

Monday, October 27, 2014

UNIT, a History

A commissioned essay for Assad Khaishgi.

Since Doctor Who first hit upon the idea of doing stories set in the present day, a fundamental aspect of its mythology has been the question of how civil authorities might respond to the bizarre events that take place in the Doctor’s wake. The most enduring answer to this question is UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, formerly the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce - a military organization specifically focused on unexplained events, particularly aliens. This, in turn, is most iconically connected to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, in which the Doctor was at one point a full-time employee of UNIT living on Earth, and throughout his tenure treated UNIT headquarters as a sort of home base on Earth to which he would regularly return. But while this is the most iconic iteration of UNIT and thus of officially sanctioned responses to alien threats, it is not the only version of either, and must be taken in a larger context.

At first, the governmental response to crises was imagined to be ad hoc. Part of this can be explained by the fact that the first two present day crises - The War Machines and The Faceless Ones - took place on the same day. The government simply responds to them to the extent that they find out about them, and they are treated as, in effect, freak occurrences. Where this begins to shift is The Web of Fear, which also introduces the character with whom UNIT is most associated: the Brigadier. Well, sort of. As we said back at the time, The Web of Fear is clearly not trying to introduce a major new character, nor for that matter an official and consistent answer to how the government will handle alien attacks. Instead, it assembles a military crew straight out of a bunch of standard war movies, and then drops a character named Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart in as a commander midway through. Lethbridge-Stewart is notable as a relatively realistic, sensible military commander - quite unlike the cliches he’s generally surrounded by. He’s an effective officer put in impossible circumstances, and he acquits himself well considering. 

On his second appearance, however, in the next year’s The Invasion, Lethbridge-Stewart has seen a promotion to Brigadier, and is now in charge of UNIT. This constituted a major shift in his character. Where before he was a reasonably straightforward military character who got dumped into a strange situation, now he was the person designed to lead a human response to the unknown. This still required being imperfect, not least because the entire point is to have the Doctor be the person who gets things right, but he’s nevertheless a character who is designed for the purpose of doing extraordinary things. This is, in and of itself, a major shift. The first three big “a threat to contemporary Earth” stories are all based around the idea that this is out of the ordinary. But from The Invasion on, threats to contemporary Earth are sufficiently common that there are standard responses to them.

This is crucial to understanding the definitive UNIT period, namely the Pertwee era. Because the real role that UNIT played in the early seventies was specifically as a television military. They’re no longer a sincere effort to answer the question of what the government’s response to aliens would be. Instead, they’re a standard guest cast on a television show. And like much of the Pertwee era they’re a bit camp, perhaps more Dad’s Army than Doomwatch. They’re firmly part of the ridiculous world of Doctor Who, and not our world’s attempt to react to Doctor Who smashing into it. In some ways this is best demonstrated by the one earth-based story they’re not in, The Sea Devils, where their absence allows Malcolm Hulke to do a very different sort of earth-based story with much more character drama. When UNIT was around, any greedy, selfish, or otherwise bad-acting humans had to be pushed off to other agencies, so that UNIT could remain more or less straightforwardly the good guys. 

At the center of this was the Brigadier. Like the Doctor, he’s, after an ill-judged and slightly rough start, a firmly heroic character, generally relied upon to be the one sane man in a world of lunatics. And UNIT was, in effect, his squad. Yes, he had supervisors he butted heads with periodically, but they were all defined by not really getting UNIT or the nature of the threats they faced. The Brigadier was the highest ranked person who actually understood that the Earth was regularly invaded by aliens. The effect, as discussed in the previous essay, was to distance the world of Doctor Who from our world, so that aliens did not so much invade the viewer’s world as they did the Brigadier’s. 

And so Doctor Who found itself in an interesting position. On the one hand, UNIT filled the necessary role of having a standing explanation for how the various alien schemes the series would present, both in the Pertwee era and later, were dealt with by governmental authorities. On the other, UNIT was very clearly an extension of one specific character. And so it is unsurprising that when that character departed following Terror of the Zygons in 1975, the nature of UNIT rapidly shifted. It made two further appearances in The Android Invasion and The Seeds of Doom, but without the Brigadier to anchor it, it became a generic military outfit that the Doctor happened to have connections with, devoid of any meaningful character. Tellingly, in the next story to be heavily set in present-day Britain, The Hand of Fear, UNIT isn’t called in, and yet the whole thing plays out basically the same way The Seeds of Doom does.

And that’s basically it for UNIT for a bit. The next time the Doctor actually directly engages with any sort of official government response to something is in Time Flight, where UNIT sits in the background - they’re not called in, but are instead just checked with. There’s also a suggestion that UNIT might be a subdivision of something called “Department C19.” The particulars of this aren’t clear, but it’s clear that there’s been some sort of reorganization - the Doctor directs people to call “Sir John Sudbury,” and merely to give his regards to Lethbridge-Stewart. This is, of course, appropriate for early Thatcher - reorganizing the government’s response to alien threats with a vague goal of increasing “efficiency” or some other bland term is exactly the sort of thing that would have happened in 1982. And this is further reinforced in 1983 when we see the Brigadier retired to become a maths teacher, unattached to UNIT, and further suggesting that UNIT has been merged into some other organization. In any case, they’re seemingly off the stage - something that exists in name only, but that has no direct impact on anything in the series.

This distancing from UNIT is reversed in 1989, however, when the Brigadier is brought back again in Ben Aaronovich’s Battlefield. Here UNIT is reimagined with an emphasis on the United Nations part of it. UNIT, especially in the novelization of the story, is portrayed as an international organization - a pleasantly utopian view that fits with the anti-nuclear weapons message of the story. The Brigadier is present, but his role is clearly to symbolically hand off the organization to a new generation and a new vision, allowing us to view this diversity-heavy vision of international cooperation as the rightful heir to the Brigadier’s 1970s heroism.

The problem, at least for UNIT, is that the Brigadier survives Battlefield, which means that the organization’s intrinsic tie to his specific character persists. And sure enough, in the new series, whenever UNIT shows up there’s some sort of explanation, whether at the time or later, about how the Brigadier is tied up in Peru. In his absence, UNIT becomes a relatively faceless and nondescript organization - they’re essentially the brand of soldiers who show up in Doctor Who stories, but no effort is made to have a standing cast. Indeed, the Davies era focuses more on making sure its newscasters are the same across seasons than it does in making UNIT anything other than a particular set of costuming decisions for when they need soldiers.

That’s not to say, however, that there’s no thought put into the larger question of the official response to alien threats. It’s just that all of this gets pushed over to Torchwood, Russell T Davies’s own quasi-UNIT. In many ways, this is a more sensible approach. Torchwood is a quasi-secret agency, famously “outside the government, beyond the police,” which has enough official jurisdiction to investigate, but not so much that they actually find themselves frequently tangled up in red tape (at least, not before they get themselves very tangled in Children of Earth). It’s worth noting that, after their introduction in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Torchwood is effectively reduced to a single team centered around one heroic figure, John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, who exists in the same tradition of square-jawed camp that both Pertwee’s Doctor and Courtney’s Brigadier hailed from. Yes, it’s full of gratuitous sex and violence, but it nevertheless clearly a conscious and deliberate modernization of the old dynamic of UNIT, fine-tuned for the present day.

By the end of Torchwood, however, the organization is in tatters and, worse, American, which left a gap in the question of what exists to interface between the Doctor and the need to have civil authorities respond to a given present-day crisis. And so in Season Seven a new look UNIT is debuted, headed by Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Stewart, the daughter of the Brigadier. With only two stories to date for this new UNIT, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions. Redgrave’s performance, in particular, is odd - she seems to prefer playing Kate as someone who is weighted down in part by her family legacy, which is a strange decision (albeit one set up in Downtime, the 90s fan film in which her character debuts, played there by Beverley Cressman) that puts her character at a slight remove from proceedings. But the secondary character of Osgood, played by Ingrid Oliver, is tremendously promising. 

This new UNIT is clearly intended to serve as a standing support cast again. But it’s also clear that the standing support cast is only there for certain size tasks. UNIT doesn’t appear in The Caretaker or Flatline, and it doesn’t appear to be UNIT coordinating the response in In the Forest of the Night. (Indeed, the Doctor seems to consciously decline to call them in The Caretaker.) Instead they’re designed to show up in stories where they are specifically thematically required (such as The Bells of Saint John, where their cameo nicely ties into the revelation that it's the Great Intelligence behind all of this). So in Day of the Doctor they are there to provide a link to Doctor Who’s heritage and history, while in Dark Water/Death in Heaven one can probably safely assume that they’ll be there to develop the “soldier” theme across Season Eight. 

But in this regard, it’s also worth pointing out that the Moffat era has developed a similar UNIT-like supporting cast in the form of the Paternoster Gang. The only issue is that the Paternoster Gang doesn’t exist to handle alien invasions in the present day, but rather in Victorian London. Despite this, they fulfill much the same function of UNIT - to the point of being an organization that extends out of one particular memorable character, in this particular case Madame Vastra.

All of this reflects a fundamental shift in the program. At this point, it’s done so many alien invasions that the question of how the civil authorities will respond is easily answered with “however the writer finds it convenient.” UNIT has become what its prevalence in the Pertwee era always meant it would be - a piece of Doctor Who’s legacy, firmly a part of its world and not ours. And so, when it’s helpful to have a standing cast of characters who carry resonances with the show’s past, they exist. When other solutions make more sense, they’re used. What originated as a solution to “how do we start doing present day stories in a show that was initially defined so that the present day was the one place it couldn’t go” has instead become one part of the show’s history, as the initial question has vanished to where it doesn’t even make sense to ask. 

And so in the end we return to more or less where we started - the fact that UNIT, and the entire tradition it represents, is in reality simply an outgrowth of the iconic character of the Brigadier. Because in many ways, the show got it right, if not quite the very first time, at least among the first times they tried thinking about the question of what sort of government response to alien invasions you’d need. And for Doctor Who, what you need is an ever so slightly camp square-jawed hero who embodies the British self-mythology of keeping calm no matter how outrageous the circumstances. And in this regard, it’s worth pointing out that the Brigadier is the one human character ever to be honored by a name that is in fact a title and a definite article - that is, the one human character to be named like the Doctor. Once you have him, everything else is just variations on the theme.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In the Forest of the Night Review

Let’s play the Kill the Moon game again and put aside the question of public opinion, not look at comments, and just go straight out. Not because I’m about to go on another rave about how this is a transcendent piece of Doctor Who, although it basically is. You can basically fairly accuse it of being Kill the Moon as if it were the Olympic Opening Ceremony, and that’s a fair criticism, so, spoilers, I’m going to put it in second. Well, though you can fairly accuse Kill the Moon of being a pro-life parable. So I guess in the end it goes down to the aesthetics of the thing, and personal preference. I think the ending of Kill the Moon is paced a bit better. So still second, but damn, that’s close.

But the real reason I’m putting public opinion aside is that this is, as many thought possible, the Blake episode. And I should set that reading up quickly, because it’s tremendously important to the episode and how I’m going to read it. If you’re a Blake geek, this is a hell of a thing. So. The Doctor suggests that the forest comes from the manipulation of time, and specifically mentions the date 1795. That is the year Blake began printing the combined volume Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which his famed poem “The Tyger” emerges. This is the poem the episode’s title is taken from, and the tacit reason that the Doctor, Clara, and Maebh are menaced by a tiger. 

This connection is reinforced by Maebh’s description of seeing and hearing “ideas” flying around her, a description that consciously evokes Blake’s biography. Blake, and there’s not really another way to put this, had visions. These visions directly inspired and shaped his work, which was often an attempt to express the revelations he experienced. His famed miniature The Ghost of a Flea is, for instance, an illustration of a literal ghost he claimed to see. There is very little reason to think Blake was a charlatan in this regard. Certainly if he was, his act was terribly ineffectual. He lived in poverty his whole life, stubbornly clinging to his visionary art despite clearly being talented enough to fashion a career if only he were more disciplined. If he was a charlatan, the adaptability needed to craft so convincing an act failed him in every other aspect of his life. No, any reckoning of William Blake as a great artist and writer must accept up front - his art was the product of visions. Numerous hypotheses exist as to the nature of these visions, but they genuinely motivated his work. 

So when Maebh Arden stands within a forest from 1795, and says she sees ideas, she is in explicit communion with whatever strange source was tapped to produce Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and America a Prophecy. She communes with the hand that dared seize the fire. This is a story about the visions that William Blake saw - visions that come from some older, stranger eternity. One we are told is the very mythic past of Britain - the image of the dark forest, the savage unknown that lurks beneath the surface of this world, and will emerge and cover over our bones when our time is done. This is Albion. This is Faerie. This is the central, sacred myth. The national character.

And it’s expressed in a vision of childhood that is not quite unreconstructed innocence, but is nevertheless fundamentally hopeful - the same one represented by Courtney. A bunch of fuckup kids we lie to and tell they’re gifted and talented when in fact they’re the problem cases. The thick and the violent and the just plain broken. Redeemed by the classic spirit of every British children’s story ever, and turned to wonders who save the world. Innocence and Experience. Much like the “sun that creates and the sun that destroys,” or the marriage of heaven to hell. Jane’s going to have a field day with this. 

The Doctor, Clara, and Danny are all clearly themselves, and they do things that advance the plot, but the plot is essentially that of Warrior’s Gate - one in which the answer is to simply do nothing. Just be. Fear less, trust more.

It is here my quibble comes up. Much as with Kill the Moon, there’s a use of the medium to celebrate its own magical power. It’s television as ritual - art as magic. A textbook example of what Moore and Morrison are talking about, even if it wasn’t actually conceived of in terms of that explicit philosophy. This is a spell. When it ends, we will wake up and forget it ever happened, but it will still effect us, in our dreams. The magical forest that lurks beneath the world reached out and saved us, and for one moment we got to commune with its dark and wondrous beauty. Much like we collectively used the moon to give birth to the possibility of utopia by leaving our lights on so Tinkerbell would live a few weeks ago. 

Except that Kill the Moon was a spell telling us to wake up. To fight, and reclaim our utopias, by being brave and standing up for the beautiful and the strange no matter how many people tell us we are wrong. And this is a spell telling us to trust the world, which is a terribly dangerous thing to say when we are on the brink of choking it to death, and of choking ourselves to death.

This is, of course, merely a difference of aesthetics. And it’s a tension that’s always implicit in Doctor Who, which can never be pure and Innocent, and is always tainted by Experience. You can make plenty of criticisms of Kill the Moon, and it’s possible that I’d have liked this one more if it had aired first. Certainly this has loads of good politics. The angry snarl against reflexive and unthinking use of psychiatric meds, and against pathologizing people is beautiful. The fact that Maebh’s visions are both legitimate in the sense that she really does talk to the trees and legitimate in that they are products of her actual and real trauma is perfect.

But at the end of the day, this is a story that tells us not to medicate the genius out of William Blake, and Kill the Moon is a story that tells us to be William Blake and fly angrily against the entirety of our times, radically embracing the glimmering lights on the other side of the veil between here and faerie. One must go above the other. I pick Kill the Moon

  • Good lord, though, this is brilliant. 
  • The show has gotten so very, very adept at advancing character development in a tangible way each episode. It actually, notably, hasn’t meant a ton of coordination among scripts. Instead, there’s just been an orderly breakdown of “pick up Clara’s life here and put it down here” selected for each script and given to the writers. One is reminded of Moffat’s grousing that nobody told him that Age of Steel ended with Rose and Mickey pissed at each other, and if they had he’d have written Girl in the Fireplace differently. It looks like his approach to getting a season arc this year has simply been to make sure everybody is briefed expressly on where the characters are meant to go. It’s worked marvelously - to a “this is clearly the way to do it for the foreseeable future” extent. Come up with a twelve-step arc for your main characters, give one step to each writer, and tell them to write a Doctor Who story around it.
  • This season has very much retained the “movie poster” idea of self-contained, high concept stories. A very “television as pop music” version of “here’s our latest hit single.” It’s very WicDiv. This approach appears to pay off very well with new writers - ones who are eager to do “here’s my big definitive statement on Doctor Who” stories. Even Jamie Matheson, whose ideas have been among the most modest of the series (and remembering that the first half was largely turned over to letting Peter Capaldi make his big definitive statements on classic types of Doctor Who stories), has clearly thrived on the fun of doing definitive takes on things. 
  • And this really combines those approaches to a satisfying degree. It’s simultaneously a huge, definitive Statement of an episode - the most blatant and comprehensive take on a particular vision of Doctor Who ever attempted - and a satisfying exploration of the character interactions between this particular version of the Doctor, Clara the control freak who’s a little too good at being the children’s book heroine, and Danny the good man who really did go to war. It’s been thought through politically, visually, aesthetically, in terms of genre, in terms of British history; this is a sleekly ornate piece of thematic unity that I am going to get to have a blast with when I do a TARDIS Eruditorum on it. It’s a gonzo entry waiting to happen. It’s also a lovely character piece. 
  • I wonder what will annoy people more. The moon being an egg, or the science in this.
  • You know what would have improved this episode for me? A little more acknowledgment of the possibility that one day the trees won’t save us. A reminder at the end that the Doctor’s speeches about catastrophe were true, and that there absolutely is an end for the age of man on this planet, and we don’t actually know when it is. If it had left that edge to things even as it went for its happy utopian resolution, it would have supplanted The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang as my all-time favorite Doctor Who story. Instead, it’s a 10/10, but with a touch of “respect instead of love” for me. 
  • I love the scene of Clara sending the Doctor off and accepting her fate, because it’s played completely straight, despite the fact that we know it’s not actually going to play out. The believability of the scene is precisely zero, but it’s nevertheless such an iconic, perfect Doctor/Clara moment that it doesn’t matter. All that was missing was the line “run, you clever boy, and remember me.” 
  • You know, thinking about it… I actually think I liked Listen more than this too.
  • So, rankings. In fact, let’s freshen things up a bit, and rank off the top of my head, if I were to rewatch an episode right now, which one I’d choose, in ranked order.

  1. Kill the Moon
  2. Listen
  3. In the Forest of the Night
  4. The Caretaker
  5. Mummy on the Orient Express
  6. Deep Breath
  7. Flatline
  8. Into the Dalek
  9. Time Heist
  10. Robot of Sherwood

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hai! (The Power of Three)

It's basically what watching this feels like.
A reminder that I'm doing a launch party for the latest TARDIS Eruditorum book at the Way Station in Brooklyn tomorrow at 3:30 PM. It's at 683 Washington Ave. I hope to see you there.

It’s September 22nd, 2012. Script is at number one, with Ne-Yo, Pink, Flo Rida, and Fun also charting. In news, Dale Cregan kills two police officers and is arrested, and the NHL begins a player lockout. While on television, it’s Chris Chibnall’s second effort for Season Seven, The Power of Three.

The Power of Three has its faults, most of them seemingly fairly broad, and few of them actually the objections usually raised. Yes, the villain is a bit rubbish, but that’s largely the point. This isn’t actually a story about alien invasion, it’s a story about the Ponds. It’s the first time we really start to see the narrative acceleration of Season Seven used with some purpose and deliberateness - the resolution of the plot is sped through because it’s not actually the part of the story that matters. The beats are all there, they’re just not given room to breathe. Really, the only two solid criticisms are that “the year of the slow invasion, when the Doctor came to stay” is rather badly undermined by him going away for the bulk of the year, and the closing monologue, with its painfully ham-fisted integration of the title, is absolutely wretched.

But on the whole, we have a story where the oddness of the previous three finally starts to be justified. I mean, in its own way it was in Asylum of the Daleks, which was at least a generative and productive hot mess. This is a simpler thing, though - a story that uses the sped up narrative to fit unusual things in the margins of a Doctor Who story. It’s not, obviously, the first time we’ve played in the margins of Doctor Who stories - that’s what Love and Monsters and Blink were for. But it’s the first time we’ve done it without largely removing the Doctor Who story from focus. Instead of looking at a Doctor Who adventure an odd angle, we’ve got a Doctor Who adventure playing out at an odd speed, so that we get to put the emphasis on different parts. However stuttering the execution, in hindsight, this is the first time they actually show us where this is all going, creatively. 

More interesting, however, is the title. Under the fan nomenclature that sprung up around the new series, The Power of Three refers clearly not just to the numerical operation of “cubing” a number, nor just to the Doctor-Amy-Rory triad, but to the iteration of the Doctor played by Jon Pertwee from 1970-74. And true enough, Three looms large over this entire story. As he looms large over any “invasion of Earth” story, that being the format that defines his tenure. This is somewhat odd if one stops to think about it for too long - over his five years and twenty-four stories, only Spearhead From Space, Terror of the Autons, The Claws of Axos, and Planet of the Spiders are actually alien invasions as such. But much like the phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” the legacy of Three is distinct from the actual twenty-four stories that make up his tenure. 

Certainly The Power of Three is invested in trying to reconstruct the infrastructure of the early seventies, with a standing guest cast to be put into service for earth-based adventures. Implicit in this is the continual link to the present day - something that was at least briefly questions in the process of designing Clara, where there were a few months in which she was named Beryl and was going to be the Victorian version we see in The Snowmen. (This was very early on - prior to casting Coleman.) But ultimately, that idea was rejected, and the assumption that we absolutely must have a character from present-day Earth remains a default axiom of the series. And likewise, because the series must exist in contact with the present day, the present day must always be one of the major settings of the series. 

Part of this is simply the growing aggregate of what the series has been in the past, which in turn defines what it will be in the future. The truth is that for an enormously successful period of its history, Doctor Who was tethered to the present day, and unleashing scary things, whether proper alien invasions or not, into contemporary settings was one of its basic functions. That cannot be pried out of Doctor Who, regardless of how much one likes the trick. (And I’m not a huge fan - looking at my rankings of stories, contemporary Earth ones are very poorly represented in the upper places, and when I do like contemporary Earth stories, they tend to be small affairs.) 

And yet it seems strange that this must be accomplished with the same military organization the Doctor worked with in the 1970s, under the command of the daughter of the primary character associated with that organization, with her history being plucked consciously and explicitly from an obscure 90s tie-in video. It’s not that such fetishization of the past is unusual, and sure, if any character is going to get a second generation replacement it’s the Brigadier, but it’s curious that the present is the only place in which the series feels the need to lay down roots like this. Especially given that the effect is in part to create a sense of distance. The UNIT stories were famously only sort of set in the present day, with a sizable contingent of fans being absolutely dead certain that they took place in the 1980s. This is a weak reading, as I’ve argued elsewhere, but it’s persistence highlights a strange tendency inherent in UNIT and the big alien invasions, which is to make it difficult to believe Doctor Who to take place in our own world. 

Now, on one level, this is hardly a problem. After all, it doesn’t. The TARDIS is made up, much like Robin Hood. The Zygons never lurked beneath Loch Ness. The last time you tripped over nothing was not, in fact, a rotting Silence corpse. But on the other, there is a difference in how “our world with things you don’t know about” and “not our world” read. Up until The War Machines, it was possible to read Doctor Who as taking place in a world identical to ours - to believe that, if you panned the camera steadily from Totters Lane to our own houses, you would find us, staring at our television screens, perfectly represented in the Doctor Who universe. After, this became impossible. Occasional retcons and lampshadings have attempted to reassert this, but a double negation is not the same as never having been rejected in the first place. The show has taken repeated steps to push us out of its fiction.

And Three represents the zenith of this. An extended period in which Doctor Who loudly shouted that it is not set in our world. In some ways, this, and not the fact that sometimes the Doctor’s allies are soldiers, is the most straightforwardly objectionable aspect of the era, which I’ve always presented as something of a problem. And it clearly is. Of the first four Doctors - that is, the ones who played the part during the relatively uninterrupted period in which Doctor Who was consistently adjacent to the beating heart of British culture and identity - Three is unique in having never really been used as the model for later ones. The default position of all Doctors is Four. Whenever the Doctor gets a bit crankier and mysterious, it’s a reversion to One. Whenever he gets impish and mercurial, it’s Two. But nobody ever goes for Three. Not even Capaldi, for all the similarity in facial structure and coat lining. Three, for all his popularity and success, was apparently a dead end. 

And yet he still has his power. And this comes from the very root of Three’s era: the fact that it pushes the viewer out of the world. Because, of course, this creates a lack within the narrative. If it is not our world, if we do not exist in it, then we are free to project ourselves into it. If we can pan from Totter’s Lane to our doorsteps and find ourselves fully represented within the narrative, then all we can do is wait passively for the TARDIS to arrive in our living room. But if we would not find ourselves anywhere within the world of the Doctor then we have an altogether different power, which is the ability to create ourselves. Here we return to the particulars of negation. What is important is that Three rejects us - that is, that it actively establishes a difference between the screen-world and our world. It’s not a matter of declaring the world of Doctor Who to not be our world, but a continual active pushing against the viewer - of telling use we don’t exist in their world, even as it leaves innumerable gaps for us to squirm through.

In this regard the weirdness of Three as a character makes sense. Because his role is to create a barrier that we cannot pass through, he’s the one Doctor who must be almost completely static. The reason for this, though, is that he instead pushes the mercurial nature of the role out to everything else. It’s the classic trick of emboitment - by serving as a rigid box of paternal charm, he is capable of ensnaring the entire world within his fundamentally mad nature. This is why Three can never quite be repeated: because his central trick is to swap the basic paradigm of inside and outside, so that the world becomes mad and mercurial around him. So in lieu of ever reiterating him, the show reiterates the world that existed around him, sustaining the glorious tension that causes us to go poking around the requisite portals to faerie.

And this, more than anything, is what The Power of Three ultimately explores. It embodies the basic tension of Three by having the Doctor simultaneously be drawn into the world and pushed out of it. The Doctor does not belong in the everyday world of the Ponds. That world necessarily resists him. But equally, he cannot exit it. Because, of course, he has the one thing Three himself lacked: the TARDIS. The magical box that is the portal to faerie. This is another essential part of why Three worked in the early seventies and cannot now - because in the absence of a magical box, the Doctor and the television itself filled the role. But this was only possible because it coincided with a conspicuous technological leap in televisual technology - with the fact that the television was now in color, and was thus ostentatious and visible in a way that it had not previously been. 

Now we are back to the standard paradigm, employed when the television has become invisible again, if indeed it’s even a television at all and not some other screen. Doctor Who is decoupled from its medium, and instead has to function on its conceptual merits alone. And so the Doctor returns to his now-standard role as the point of contact between the two worlds. He cannot exist in “our world” or “not our world” entirely, because his entire purpose is to demonstrate that these are not rigid categories in the first place. 

And so we get the central magic trick of The Power of Three, which is that a story that is seemingly about the Ponds and their double lives is in fact about the means by which they can have two lives in the first place. It was never a story about these characters, but about the fact that there exists something on the other side of their lives. This is, after all, the only thing a first face can ever be: the first face you’ve ever looked away from. This is the real power of Three - as a set of signifiers that are at once iconic and rejected, he becomes the enduring symbol of the show moving forward.